Alienation and Political Agency

Alienation and Political Agency


The term “political engagement” is meant to contrast with everyday life. Even in everyday life our own actions may emerge as deeply unintelligible to us, but when this occurs it is something of a shock. The presumption of everyday life is that people know who they are, they know what they are doing, and they know why they are doing it. When we are engaged in the everyday we take it as a given that we are among those people.

       Most people go through life without deep political engagement. To be politically engaged is not only to be involved in a project whose centrally motivating consequences typically involve very long time frames and very large numbers of other people; to be politically engaged is to have a significant part of one’s self-identity derived from one’s engagement in such a project. Not all who carry out acts of political magnitude can be thought of as politically engaged. For instance, the bureaucrat who works in the counter-insurgency division of the war ministry may merely see himself as a civil servant, or as a good family man holding down a secure, well-paying position. Making a revolution is a paradigmatically political project. Revolutionaries are not typically people who are making revolutions in addition to the many other things they do; they are individuals whose self-identity is rooted in their project.

       As extreme situations, revolutions throw the individual into contexts devoid of the relative certainties of the everyday. In Henry IV: Part 2, Shakespeare tells of revolution, of the problems of action, and of people with very different dispositions to act. Consider the following passage in which the Earl of Northumberland, whose son Hotspur died in insurrection, is told that a new army has arisen to fight against the king:


The gentle Archbishop of York is up,

With well-appointed powers: he is a man Who with a double surety binds his followers.

My lord your son had only but the corpse’,

But shadows and shows of men to fight;

For that same word, rebellion, did divide

The action of their bodies from their souls

And they did fight with queasiness, constrain’d,

As men drink potions, that their weapons only

Seem’d on our side: but, for their spirits and souls,

This word, rebellion, it had froze them up,

As fish are in a pond. But now the bishop

Turns insurrection to religion:

Suppos’d sincere and holy in his thoughts,

He’s follow’d both with body and with mind.1


       Here Shakespeare articulates the problem of alienation in political action: how to prevent the division of “the action of their bodies from their souls.” In this case the division is brought about by “that . . . word, rebellion,” and the alienation of the soldiers from their own actions is overcome by turning “insurrection to religion.” This transformation is said to resolve the internal conflict: no longer do the soldiers hold back; they no longer believe that they are acting wrongly. Thus the great power of revolutionary religious figures.

       In Man’s Fate,2 his account of the Chinese Revolution, Malraux calls attention to a second problem of alienation within political action. Questions of doubt emerge.


Kyo could not free himself from that reverberation of machines transmitted by the soil to his muscles—as if those machines for manufacturing truth were encountering, within himself, Vologin’s hesitations and affirmations. During his journey up the river he had constantly felt how poorly informed he really was, how difficult it was for him to get a solid basis for his activity if he no longer consented purely and simply to obey the instructions of the international. . . .

       “It’s not knowing . . . ,” said the latter, “if it’s a question of killing Chiang Kai-shek, I know. As for this fellow Vologin, it’s all the same to him I guess; but for him, instead of murder, it’s obedience. For people who live as we do there must be a certainty. For him carrying out orders is sure, I suppose, as killing is for me. Something must be sure. Must be.3


Here there is no internal moral conflict; Kyo is not someone who turns with revulsion at the prospect of killing another person. His problem is to know that what he is doing makes sense; he seeks certainty in a situation filled with the inevitable ignorance of the actual consequences of actions. Here Kyo struggles with his realization of “how poorly informed he really was” and how he lacked “a solid basis for his activity.” Kyo, unable to simply rely upon the Party as a way of bridging this separation of act and consequence, turns toward some other “solution.”

       In each of these cases there is the threat of some fundamental lack of integrations between the activity and the self. The first is a conflict between the individual’s values and the actions he is called upon to undertake. The second is an absence of an adequately known tissue of means-ends connections linking the individual’s actions to his ultimate objectives. These disjunctions are not unique to political activity. If political activity on a grand scale has a unique characteristic it is the combination of its structural tendency to produce alienation and the absence of experienced alienness. The question is not so much one of why one might be alienated from one’s own activity, but rather “How is it that alienness is not the general experience of the political agent?”

       It is interesting to note that the two literary passages we cited, in the very breath that they identify the problem also go on to identify a solution that has been found. The appeal to the bishop as moral authority represents a “solution” to the conflict of values. Where the problem resides in the absence of visible means-ends connections a different authority may be called into play; the Party may emerge as the tactical authority, as the decision maker that knows what needs knowing. Where this is no longer viable, as in the case of Kyo, some other solution is sought. Kyo finds it, paradoxically enough, in killing. Here at least he is in direct contact with a “rationalizing” outcome. There is at least something tangible that is being accomplished.

       Of course, these “solutions” do not really achieve integration. Despite the moral sanction of the church, the conflict between means and ends remains. Despite the appeal of “direct action,” the problem of eventual consequences has to be faced. They serve as internal expedients, almost like the pontoon bridges that are thrown up so that soldiers can quickly move across the river to engage in the next battle.

       In this essay I will explore the dynamic of alienation within political engagement. It cannot be understood without focusing on political identity, on what is often termed “being political.” This is not primarily a matter of action, but of self and self-experience.

Engagement and Alienation


Political engagement implies a self-identity that is rooted in political activity. This is not something that is chosen. Rather political activity has a tendency to compel this locus of self-identity upon its participants. There is a process whereby a person becomes politicized, by which I mean much more than merely becoming concerned or involved in social issues. It is a process whereby the individual comes to define himself or herself and others in terms of the political project. Politicization is not something that one does to oneself; it is something that happens to one. How and why it happens is worth considering.

       There are different ways in which a person might come to have a certain self-identity. Some of the major features of our identity structures are the result of actions that we take. One might decide to join a particular religious denomination or to attend a particular college or to engage in a certain line of employment. In virtue of that choice one takes on a particular property; one is a Presbyterian or a Cornell student or a nurse. These properties may or may not play a major role in one’s identity structure. And it may be that only over time and without one’s being aware of it, they do come to play a role such that “being a nurse” or “being a Cornell student” becomes a central part of the individual’s self-identity. But there still remains a major element of choice in that one can break that identification by leaving the organization, or by taking a different job.

       Moreover, it is often the case that from the third-person point of view we do not view any of these properties as inherently identity giving. Often enough we so totally leave it up to the individual to choose his own identity that the distinction between self-identity and identity is conflated. His identity is merely the self-identity he has.

       Yet sometimes it is rather different. Sometimes there is something so important about someone, be it oneself or another, that that feature defines who he is whether he accepts it or not, even whether he knows it or not. In literature there is the classic format in which the true identity of the protagonist is known to the reader or audience and the drama involves his coming to discover who he is and the implications of that fact. We find this motif in Oedipus, in the story of Moses, in the tale of King Arthur, and numerous fairy tales of princes and paupers.

       In these situations it is never a matter of some incidental fact that is unknown to the individual. Rather it is a fact of such overwhelming import that it imposes itself on the individual. The mere discovery of it is instantaneously transformative or crisis generating. In literature it is the perspective of the author that affirms that these facts are of such overwhelming importance. But this author’s perspective emerges from a social life that views certain properties as carrying with them enormous rights and duties and is the basis for a status of inferiority or superiority.

       Involvement in deeds of enormous magnitude have this same characteristic. One cannot be the person who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and merely be that person. One cannot be the man who assassinated President Lincoln and have that be merely one of many characteristics about oneself. Occasionally we find an individual who does treat such a fact about himself or herself as an incidental fact, but this is a matter of his or her self-identity. Our response to such a self-identity is that it is the result of a project of denial. He or she is a person running from themself, denying their heritage, trying to escape from themself. In short, we sometimes view people as having an objective identity that is imposed by a self-defining reality.

       Because political activity involves the individual in action on a grand scale it has a tendency to confer an objective identity. And because the individual herself participates within the social world that views political activity in this way, it also has a tendency to generate the self-identity of the political agent. Thus political activity gives rise to political engagement. The activity comes to construct the self that is expressed through it. It has an inherent power to become self-actualizing. Thus it can have a hypnotizing force on the individual, both calling her into being and expressing that being within the same process. And the more important the role of the individual, the stronger is this power.

       While this is a general feature of all action on a political scale, in the modern period this inherent power of political activity—its power to engage the actor, to make an agent out of her—was dramatically raised in intensity through the lens of Hegel and Marx.



Marx, Hegel, and Historical Identity


I shall try to set the stage for discussing various modes of political engagement by considering the relation of self-actualization to political activity that is inherent in Marx’s politicization of Hegel. However, not even in Marx’s early writings is this matter discussed directly, and one may wonder if Marx himself ever explicitly formulated this aspect of his general outlook. What I am discussing then is not Marx, and not even necessarily Marxism, but rather a certain way of viewing history and politics that emerged most strongly in Marxism. It stands, however, distinct from Marxism and does not rise or fall with beliefs that were specific to Marx.

       From our ordinary perspectives, history is about human beings and the conditions of their existence, either individually or in groups. It is about the things that human beings do and the events that happen to human beings. Most early historical writing was political history, accounts of the most momentous acts and calamities that befell the powerful figures around whom history centered. Today much historical writing concerns economic and social conditions, but like political history, the ultimate subject in human life.

       Hegel offers a radically different perspective. For Hegel, history is not really about human beings at all. Of course, historical study takes as its object that which happens to human beings, their groups and institutions, but the goings on of humans are not of significance in themselves. They take on significance because they embody something more fundamental: Spirit, Mind or Consciousness. History is reconceived as the study of the self-creation and self-actualization of Spirit as it comes to know itself. The great drama is the evolution of Spirit, and only secondarily and derivatively, the evolution of the finite individuals who are the vehicles through which Spirit is expressed.

       This may sound less puzzling in a religious idiom. Accordingly, it would be asserted that history is not about humans but about God. Moreover, the notion of God that is involved is not God as a being that exists for all infinity as an all-knowing creator, but rather a pantheistic presence that is within everything. What occurs in history is the evolution of God; history is the story of God’s coming to self-consciousness of the fact that he is God. The way a pantheistic God evolves is through the evolution of the world that is his embodiment; particularly, the evolution of human consciousness.

       When Spirit comes to know itself, what it comes to know is that it is Spirit in the process of its own self-creation, which is at the same time the creation of the world. It comes to know itself when it discovers that it is the world. The discovery that Spirit makes of itself externalized as the world is for Hegel an epistemological discovery. The world is neither a given that is just there to be observed, understood, and known, nor is it a hidden reality that lies behind a world of appearances, that can never be known. Rather, the world is the externalization of Mind. Thus, in the end, Spirit comes to self-actualization through an epistemological self-understanding that destroys the subject-object distinction.

       To put forward an account of this sort is in some way like writing a piece of literature within which all the characters are defined by their place within the story. The Hegelian perspective, because it presents itself as a perspective that for the first time has penetrated the most fundamental realities of all being—of humans, of God, of existence—is a perspective that cannot merely be accepted and set on the shelf. A Hegelian vision of the nature of existence is not one of many beliefs that one has. It is an overriding story that reveals the true identity of all that occurs within it.

       What is the nature of self-experience for the individual who perceives history in Hegelian terms? As individuals we are meaningful as part of a greater Totality—a Totality that is itself moving from potentiality to actuality. If this is our meaning, then our most essential expression of self consists in our participation in this project of the world. Our personal potentials represent highly restricted aspects of human potential. Moreover, as individuals living in a particular stage of the evolution of Spirit, we know that our humanness is itself something undergoing transformation, and that our personal potential will be transcended by the fuller potential of those whose being expresses a more fully developed stage in the life of Spirit.

       A particular individual can only achieve self-actualization in virtue of the accident of living at the end of history. This is not the end of physical time, but is the end of the story of Spirit’s self-actualization. What self-actualization is possible for those of us not embodying the final stage of Spirit is that which comes through an identification of oneself as the embodiment of Spirit, and thus the discovery of oneself in the historical creation of Spirit by Spirit. On Hegel’s view, it is he, Hegel, who is the first individual to fully achieve self-actualization, for it is through him that Spirit comes to know itself.

       With Marx we have the “existentialization” of Hegel. Human existence is once again placed at the center. History, instead of being the story of Spirit’s self-actualization through its embodiment in human culture, is the story of humanity’s self-actualization. Alternatively, we may say that history is the story of the self-creation and the self-actualization of the human personality, by human beings, through the discovery that it is the human personality that makes history. The discovery of humankind as the agent of its own creation is a two-pronged discovery. In the first instance it is empirical. It is a theory of culture, and of ideology; it is the recognition of the primacy of changes in the forces of production as the cause of the evolution of human personality or personhood. This social personality is the embodiment of the dominant ideology. In the structures of beliefs, values, self-identities, hopes, perceptions, and needs of human beings, the ideology of any given period is concretely embodied. On the other hand, this discovery of the importance of economic factors is rendered a self-creation of humans by humans through a second insight that parallels Spirit’s epistemological discovery that the world is the externalization of Spirit. This is the recognition that the economic relations underlying cultural development are not themselves external forces that act upon humankind, but are themselves the externalization of human reality. To think of history as governed by economic laws that are outside of humanity and act upon it, is what Marx called “the fetishism of commodities.”4 But whereas in Hegel the discovery that the world is the externalization of Spirit constitutes Spirit’s self-actualization, for Marx it merely sets the stage.

       One cannot achieve freedom by identifying oneself with the forces that shape one, even if those forces are an expression of the collective nature of humanity. What is necessary is to actually gain control over the processes whereby human beings are created. This cannot be achieved by epistemological insight. On the contrary, it is itself an historical outcome that will be brought about through self-conscious political activity. This political activity is self-conscious in that it recognizes itself within, and is based upon, an understanding of the historical process. Thus, in Marx as in Hegel, the self-actualization of the individual is only possible at the final stage in the development of the human personality. For Marx, it is political activity based on self-understanding that brings us towards this final stage; for Hegel full self-understanding is the final stage itself.

       Of course, any individual can, at any point in history, experience himself or herself as self-actualized. But this feeling is had at the expense of understanding who one is. For Marx, selfhood is achieved only when the full range of human potentialities and needs are developed and expressed. Full self-actualization involves the expression through action of the fully developed personality. The primary locus of one’s actions is one’s labor within the existing economic relations of one’s era. So long as these relations remain unchanged, there exist no forms for the expression through action of humankind’s highest potentialities. So long as one suffers from the fetishism of commodities, one fails to understand that the limitation on the range of possible human actions is societally imposed, and one may erroneously imagine that expressing what is highest in humanity can be done merely through right conduct, personal choice, and virtue.

       Those who have a sense of self-actualization during transitional historical phases are blind in a second respect. In our terms, these individuals have mistaken their persons (the person they find themselves to be) for their selves. They have identified with what is accidental and arbitrary and will be overcome in the course of historical development. They are out of touch with that which is most essentially themselves. Even if we restrict ourselves to the private sphere, what is actualized is not the human self but the historically given person. In terms of my discussion of the self as the integrated personality, we can say that in a Marxist view of the self, integration of the personality is only a necessary condition of selfhood. Selfhood, or the fully human self, is an historical product that can be understood as an integrated personality with certain specific component values, beliefs, perceptions, and notions of self-identity. These components, in general, are historical products. The existing personality types at any given point in time are a function of the forms of activity (i.e., the economic structures) of the particular age and the place of the individual within that structure. Thus, our personality, including the existing level of needs that govern our subjective sense of self-actualization, is itself a social product, and most typically a deficient one.

       The person that we are, with our particular self-identity, is what is to be overcome. Thus, it is from the concrete minutia of what we are like that we should be alienated. For instance, our conceptions of worth, or of beauty, our values and desires that determine the things that give us pleasure, or a sense of triumph, pride or achievement—all these are corrupt. They all partake in the ideological structure of an oppressive social order. For instance, one takes pleasure and pride in those aspects of oneself that allow one to dominate others in various competitions: the competition for wealth, for status, for the better forms of work, for the most sought after members of the opposite sex. When seen properly, these aspects of one’s personality are seen to be expressions of the total social order with its inherent class structures, its necessary scarcities (e.g., the means of life) and its artificial scarcities (e.g., scarcity of self-esteem and social recognition). In terms of the discussion in essay (?), the analyses of Marxism may be treated as alienness-causing beliefs that give us reasons to re-perceive much that constitutes our self-identity. On a psychological level, moreover, they reveal that for many individuals there is a conflict between their moral views and self-image on the one hand and the specific realities of their personalities on the other. Thus, even the prima facie integration of the personality is shown to be erroneous. Typically, within even highly integrated personalities there are hidden contradictions—hidden, because only social analyses can reveal the nature of the elements.

       Given this, one cannot throw oneself into projects that might be satisfying because one cannot identify with those aspects of one’s personality that would thereby be satisfied. For instance, one cannot simply join the competitive dynamic of contemporary life; neither the qualities that allow one to succeed nor the pleasure one takes in the fruits of success is truly one’s own. Thus, there is engendered an experience of the alienness of most of what we might have otherwise taken as reflecting our truest self: our desires, our tastes, our views and values. In ordinary terms, the Marxist is not at one with himself or herself. If he or she is fully aware of this inner discord, this inner contradiction, then central aspects of the person are experienced as non-self.

       This experience of aspects of oneself as alien is not uncommon amongst thorough-going critics of any cultural order. However, the reaction to the political critique of personality is often a form of individual omnipotence-fantasy in which the individual believes that he is capable of radically transforming himself as an individual irrespective of the social order. In part, this split with a Marxist perspective arises from non-Marxist beliefs about the possibilities of personality change. But beyond this there is a non-Marxist perception of personality. Personality is viewed as something to be found in and only in localized interpersonal relations. But Marx’s basic point is that interpersonal relations are not localized. One’s personality or nature is historically fixed in the main because one’s relations with others are fixed and expressed through economic relations. This is not primarily a matter of a causal relation between the economic forms and the nature of human beings in a given historic period. The economic form is the form of humanity in disguise.

       The tendency to see the economic realm as a neutral universe within which the issues of character, of personality, of virtue, vice, identity, and spirituality are not revealed is itself an historical product that emerged only in the eighteenth century. Marx thus reaffirms in secular-historical terms an orientation towards the economic sphere that was present both in the Middle Ages and the Reformation.

       Non-Marxist self-experience emerges in various forms. Those who experience themselves as existing in opposition to the present totality tend to experience themselves as outside of that totality. Thus, most social critics tend to be alienated from the society, experiencing estrangement rather than shame for a totality of which one is a part. But from a Marxist perspective, the identification of self as magically outside the totality represents a flight of romanticism, a fantasy of individual transcendence that cannot be achieved. Thus, while we are all fated to not be self-actualized within the existing social world, one who sees history as Marx did knows this is her fate, and that she cannot get beyond this realization. No leap to a different social order, to a utopia, personal or social, is possible.

       Thus, the politicization of Hegel brings a new form of loss. It is the loss of one who discovers that he or she is not to be. It is the discovery that not only will one always remain in potential, but that one will be in conflict with one’s potential, always tending to be something incompatible with it. This is so because one is inevitably a part of one’s historical epoch. The concrete meaning of this is (a) one is one’s social activity, (b) one’s social activity is given to one, and (c) one can’t find in any given historical period the social activity that belongs to another period. In short, there is nothing to do that would count as self-actualizing activity. Yet one has a self-identity that recognizes one’s true self in one’s necessarily unexpressed and undeveloped potentialities.

       Insofar as there is any role that escapes from this, it is that of the revolutionary who knows herself. She lives in opposition to a world that is inside of her as well as outside. She is one whose self-identity consists in part in the fact that she knows that she is and must be alien to herself. More generally, the only life that to some extent escapes from this trap is that of the individual whose social activity participates in the process of the conscious creation of the human self on a social scale. Only through such activity does one gain an objective identity that is unified with those aspects of the historic person that remain as it becomes the human self. That is, only through such activity does subjective self-identity merge with objective identity. Marxism thus gives rise to a self-identity that understands itself in terms of the role it will actually play in the process of the creation of the human self, and Marxism offers itself as the guiding vehicle through which one attains the complementary objective identity.

       Thus, the overwhelming psychological power of Marxism emerges because it stands as the revelatory story of the world, through which one can understand and become oneself. It retains the Hegelian conception of history as a movement towards self-actualization, but it is the self-actualization of human beings, not Spirit. In relation to this ideal and account of the human past, the meaning of individual and social reality may be discerned. That is, the relationship of events, persons, and structures to this process is experienced as their “real meaning.” Thus, at one and the same time, Marxism lifts political activity to the level of vehicle for individual and historical self-actualization, and destroys all alternative conceptions of self-actualization.

       The politicization of Hegel results then in not only giving to political activity unique powers as a realm of self-actualization, but it gives to political analysis a unique power of revealing true identity, and it strips away from the self many of the elements of the personality that might otherwise constitute the features of self-identity around which an active life would coalesce. Thus political activity emerges as political engagement and this engagement becomes total, subsuming all else within it.

       The outcome then is an incredible tension. On the one hand, political activity becomes the locus of all that is meaningful. On the other hand, political activity is not an ideal locus for self-expression. More often than not, people are apt to feel out of touch with themselves and in danger of losing themselves in such activity. As we noted at the outset, the great problems are those of moral conflict and the unintelligibility of one’s own action. Only if action is integrated with our values and beliefs can action be expressive of the self; yet because of the realities with which one deals, this contact is difficult to establish. Appeals to moral and/or tactical authorities represent attempted solutions. Where these are seen as inadequate, “direct action,” whether of a violent or a humanitarian sort, has its appeal. Yet, this too is inadequate



Three Modes of Political Engagement


It is possible to distinguish three distinct modes of political engagement. They represent more than three different styles of action; each of them represents a different way of dealing with the problem of self identity and potential alienation. The three types are (1) objectivist engagement, (2) integral engagement, and (3) rationalist engagement. I have identified each of these forms of political engagement with an historic figure, respectively, Trotsky, Gandhi, and Bentham.

       Let me begin with objectivist engagement. The core of the objectivist outlook is that one’s identity is determined by the actual role that one plays, not by the consequences one intends or the values one holds dear.

       Leon Trotsky, maker of the Russian Revolution, is history’s most dramatic and outspoken objectivist. I will use Trotsky as the exemplar of this mode of engagement, but it should be understood that this perspective is not unique to either Trotsky or Marxism.

       For Trotsky the most important facts about a person bear on his or her role in the processes of historical development and class struggle. In terms of our notion of identity, the Trotskyite would say that “being bourgeois” or “being counter-revolutionary” or “being revolutionary” are part of the objective identity of those who are bourgeois, counter-revolutionary, or revolutionary. These are designations that do not depend on the individual’s own view of himself (i.e., his self-identity). They are a matter of objective identity, of who someone really is irrespective of who he thinks he is or how he identifies himself. The criteria for their application specify a particular social role. Merely having certain views, intentions, and attitudes does not suffice to determine which of these identity-defining designations applies.

       Thus, one is always in danger of not knowing who one is, not in the sense of lacking a self-identity, but in that one may be attributing to oneself an identity (social role) that one does not have. One may fancy oneself a revolutionary and actually be a counter-revolutionary. To be in this kind of error, where one’s subjective self-identity does not accord with one’s objective identity, because of political ignorance, is indeed a pathetic fate. The most damaging criticism one can make of someone or some group that regards itself as revolutionary is to maintain that it is really counter-revolutionary, or an unwitting lackey of the bourgeoisie, or an oppressor of the proletariat. Such “insights” are supposed to come from objective social analysis. What should be recognized is that the familiar judgments of an agent’s character are suspended, because from within an objectivist engagement, character traits are not themselves central aspects of an individual’s identity.

       This stress on actual consequences is reflected in how the objectivist deals with the issue of justifying abhorrent means. Consider the following passage from Trotsky’s essay, “Their Morals and Ours.”


A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature, and to the abolition of the power of man over man.

       “We are to understand then that in achieving this end anything is permissible?” sarcastically demands the Philistine, demonstrating that he understands nothing. That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind. . . . It deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws.

       “Just the same,” the moralist continues to insist, “does it mean that in the class struggle against capitalists all means are permissible: lying, frame-up, betrayal, murder and so on?” Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat. . . . Precisely from this it follows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts. . . .

       These criteria do not, of course, give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers. . . .

       Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of view of “pure morals”? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. . . . Our relation to the assassin remains neutral only because we know not what motives guided him. If it became known that Nikolayev acted as a conscious avenger for workers’ rights . . . our sympathies would be fully on the side of the assassin. However, not the question of subjective motives, but that of objective expediency has for us the decisive significance. Are the means really capable of leading to the goal?5


       When one performs an act that one views as abhorrent, one is in some degree of conflict with one’s values. For Trotsky this conflict can be overcome if the means are justified in terms of overriding ends. Such a predisposition to conflict elimination may seem a necessary feature for any programmatic politics. To insist upon more integration than this is to allow historical realities to render one impotent. Given the nature of the world, one cannot be politically significant and at the same time more coherent than this. To seek a greater degree of unity is a matter of self-indulgence.

       This view seems to have been held quite self-consciously by Trotsky. In his “Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism,” he lashes out at those who would propose a code of conduct for the revolution.


However, so long as this code remains unaccepted as a rule of conduct by all the oppressors and the oppressed, the warring classes will seek to gain victory by every means, while petty-bourgeois moralists will continue as heretofore to wander in confusion between the two camps. Subjectively, they sympathize with the oppressed—no one doubts that. Objectively, they remain captives of the morality of the ruling class and seek to impose it upon the oppressed instead of helping them to elaborate the morality of insurrection. . . .

       They openly demanded a return to Kant . . .  if their ideas are plumbed to the bottom, it appears that they have joined an old cause, long since discredited: to subdue Marxism by means of Kantianism; to paralyze the socialist revolution by means of “absolute” norms which represent in reality the philosophical generalizations of the bourgeoisie . . . .

       Civilization can be saved only by the socialist revolution. To accomplish the overturn, the proletariat needs all its strength, all it resolution, all its audacity, passion and ruthlessness. Above all it must be completely free from the fictions of religion, “democracy” and transcendental morality—the spiritual chains forged by the enemy to tame and enslave it. Only that which prepares the complete and final overthrow of imperialist bestiality is moral, and nothing else. The welfare of the revolution—that is the supreme law!

       A clear understanding of the interrelation between the two basic classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the epoch of their mortal combat—discloses to us the objective meaning of the role of petty-bourgeois moralists. Their chief trait is impotence.6


       In this remarkable passage, Trotsky has not only argued the necessity of ignoring moral strictures, he has provided the individual with a way of perceiving herself that will minimize the sense of moral conflict caused by her actions. One’s moral inhibitions, and the sense that to act contrary to one’s moral strictures is to act contrary to one’s self, are the inroads that the defenders of the social order have made into one’s person. The very notion of oneself that identifies self in terms of these moral values is a factor in the class struggle. The proletariat must free itself from “the spiritual chains forged by the enemy to enslave it.” Thus, the inner conflict and the potentially paralyzing alienness that lies behind the “means and ends” debate are subjected to a political analysis. From the perspective of the imperative towards a positive social and historical identity, these moral strictures are themselves subjected to an alienation, an expulsion, from the self-identity. They are relegated to a bracketed position, a realm where they are mine-but-not-really-mine. They continue to exist, but now they are disconnected elements, not fully belonging to the self. Thus, the potential for experiencing one’s actions as alien is avoided through a political analysis that establishes a new alienness, not now of the actions but of the moral strictures. By means of this form of analysis there is a relocation of one’s sense of what is self and not-self. The therapy for paralysis is the objective understanding of its causes and functions.

       What is involved here are second-order value judgments, value judgments about the values one holds. Trotsky subjects morality itself to the utilitarian standard. Through the adoption of the second-order value perspective, the Trotskian agent reestablishes his linkage with his activity. He does this by essentially estranging himself from those value judgments that tend to “divorce the actions of the body from the soul.” For this to be successful, it is not necessary that the individual fully eliminate the inhibiting judgments. Rather, in judging them the individual estranges himself from them; puts them in a bracketed category in which even if they continue to have some emotional force that emotional force is seen as foreign, as not really one’s own.

       In functioning in this way the objectivist is not urging identification with second-order rather than first-order value judgments. She is not taking a position on where the self resides in a hierarchy of self-reflection. (See the debate between Watson and Frankfurt considered elsewhere in this essay.) Rather what she says is that you are your social or political role. If you make incorrect second-order value judgments, and thus incorrectly judge your first-order values to be supportive of the movement to a classless society (or whatever fundamental desiderata the objectivist seeks) and if you act accordingly, the fact that you identify with such objectives even in your second-order value judgments is totally irrelevant. You are determined by the consequences of your actions, not by your identifications, even on the secondary level.

       Central to Trotsky’s analysis is the empirical claim that by and only by means contrary to moral strictures can the liberation of humanity be achieved. Conceptions of the self and in particular criteria of identity are evaluated in terms of their role in furthering or retarding this historical process.

       Trotsky’s analysis of the effect of the internalization of moral principles (i.e., they lead to impotence and retard the liberation of humanity) serves as an alienating belief. That is, in virtue of coming to hold this belief about one’s own values, one comes to view them as not really one’s own, but as implants, as subtle means of control that have been foisted upon one as a gigantic trick designed to support the power structure.

       Yet this outcome, that the individual who makes such a second-order judgment about his own values will feel alienated from them, is itself not a necessity. It is theoretically possible to reach such a conclusion about the import of one’s own values and still embrace them as one’s own. In saying this, I am not talking about the situation in which one simply does not care about the liberation of humanity and so is unmoved by having reached such a conclusion about one’s values. Rather, it is possible to see one’s values as in fact being problematic, and yet to still not feel at a distance from them. The alienation that Trotsky is able to bring off in virtue of his analysis occurs only when there is a prior internalization of the objectivist criterion for identity—that you are your social role.

       The rejection of abhorrent means, even when one believes that they are the only way of attaining valuable ends, is at the core of integral engagement. It is well represented by Kierkegaard, though in his case it is not yet integral politics, but rather a more general integral engagement with the world. In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, he writes:


What means do you use in order to carry out your occupation? Are the means as important to you as the end, wholly as important? Otherwise it is impossible for you to will only one thing, for in that case the irresponsible, the self-seeking, and the heterogeneous means would flow in between in confusing and corrupting fashion. . . . In time and on earth one distinguishes between the two and considers that the end is more important than the means. One thinks that the end is the main thing and demands of one who is striving that he reach the end . . . to gain an end in this fashion is an unholy act of impatience. . . .

       If a man sets himself a goal for his endeavor here in this life, and he fails to reach it, then, in the judgment of eternity, it is quite possible that he may be blameless. Yes, he may even be worthy of praise. . . . He might even have been prevented from reaching the goal just by being unwilling to use any other means than those which the judgment of eternity permits. In which case by his very renunciation of the impatience of passion and the inventions of cleverness, he is even worthy of praise. He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. . . . To the temporal and earthly passion the end is unconditionally more important than the means. On that very account, it is the passionate one’s torment, which if carried to its height must indeed make him sleepless and then insane, namely, that he has no control over time, and that he continually arrives too late, even if it was by merely half an hour. And what is still worse, since earthly passion is the rule, it can truthfully be said, that it is not wisdom which saves the worst ones from going insane, but indolence. On the other hand, the blessed comfort of the Eternal is like a refreshing sleep, is like “the cold of snow in the time of harvest” to the one who wills the Eternal. He whose means are invariably just as important as the end, never comes too late. Eternity is not curious and impatient as to what the outcome in this world of time will be. It is just because of this that the means are without exception as important as the end. To earthly and worldly passion, this observation must seem shocking and paralyzing. To it conscience must seem the most paralyzing thing of all. For conscience is indeed “a blushing innocent spirit that sets up a tumult in a man’s breast and fills him with difficulties.”7 (emphasis mine)


       Of course, Kierkegaard would be subjected to a ruthless class analysis and shown to be objectively promoting the interests of the status quo—and such a turning of one’s back on “the world of time” would be seen to be in keeping with the general political function of the religious outlook. However, integralism is not restricted to the nonpolitical. As integral politics, it seeks the same degree of integration that Kierkegaard does, and situates moral strictures in a central position in the self-complex. This integral politics is most closely associated with the name of Gandhi. While we may doubt that the historical Gandhi “lived up to” the Gandhian style, the identification of him with the integral mode is well established.

       In understanding integral engagements in political activity, it is important to not deny the conflicts. Thus it is possible to hold the view that only by using tactics that involve no violation of the dignity of the other is it possible to achieve the political objective. But then the conflict with the objectivist is really over who is accurate in his means-ends assessments. The objectivist himself would embrace nonviolence if he were convinced that this was the way to accomplish the end. The sharpest contrast between alternative engagements arises when there is agreement on the consequences. Needless to say, in the real world the waters are often muddied.

       Thus, the crucial aspect of integral engagement is not the tactic of nonviolence; rather, it is that nonviolence is not primarily a tactical feature. As a distinctive mode of being political integral engagement is distinguished by the fact that the factual connections between means and ends simply do not occupy crucial importance. For a given means to be justified it is not sufficient that it produces the greatest good. Indeed it may not even be necessary that it leads to any worthy end outside itself. Instead political activity is a necessary vehicle for the emergence and expression of selfhood. Change may result, but then it may not. The overriding problem is that of how to be oneself in the face of social reality.

       Integralism responds to the fact that the social world calls into question one’s integrity. “Integrity” is meant quite literally. The wholeness that is constitutive of the self is imperiled by actions one is called upon to perform, or it may be compromised in virtue of one’s past actions, or just in virtue of being alive within an unjust social order.

       The paradigm of resistance to an action one is called upon to perform is conscientious objection. Luther’s phrase, “I can do no other” occupies a central place in the social and legal perception of the conscientious objector. Rather than seeing this as a denial of freedom, or a bowing to external moral forces, the emphasis should be placed upon the “I”—if I did other, I would not be “I.” The action in question violates the wholeness of the self; the self could not be the agent of such actions.

       Similarly, acts of civil disobedience sometimes serve primarily as public declarations that define the self and limit the extent to which one is implicated by the facts of the world. As such they are direct efforts to preserve wholeness. Of course, Gandhi’s activities were not mere matters of testament, but were intended to achieve specific political goals. In Gandhi’s Truth, Erik Erikson writes:


Truthful action, for Gandhi, was governed by the readiness to get hurt and yet not to hurt—action governed by the principle of ahimsa. . . . I think Gandhi implied in it, besides a refusal to do physical harm, a determination not to violate another person’s essence. . . . Gandhi reminds us that, since we cannot possibly know the absolute truth, we are “therefore not competent to punish. . . .

       And in all this, the resister must be consistently willing to persuade and to enlighten, even as he remains ready to be persuaded and enlightened. He will, then, not insist on obsolete precedent or rigid principle, but will be guided by what under changing conditions will continue or come to feel true to him and his comrades, that is, will become truer through action. . . .

       Gandhi, at one time, urged any individual or authority that was “fasted against” and which considered the fast to be blackmail “to refuse to yield to it even though the refusal may result in the death of the fasting person.”8


       It is clear that the “truth” that Gandhi is concerned with is not the same as that of Trotsky. For Trotsky it is a matter of actually knowing what will occur, as opposed to mere belief without certainty. For Gandhi, “truth” is a matter of “being in the truth”; it describes a state of being of the agent. This includes thoughtfulness, but does not center on factual knowledge. Rather, truth is unity, what we have called integration. Action that is true is action that is fully integrated with all the values and belief of the self. One is the true agent of it.

       We must not lose sight of the centrality of personal integration to this mode of political activity. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi relates how his endeavor to attain full personal integration led him to vow to observe brahmacharya (sexual abstention) for life. He explains that the “Brahmacharya means control of the senses in thought, word and deed.”9 When it is fully achieved, this control is the peaceful, fluid control of unity rather than effort. In a passage reminiscent of Augustine, he writes, “I have yet to achieve complete mastery over thought, which is so essential. Not that the will or effort is lacking, but it is yet a problem to me wherefrom undesirable thoughts spring their insidious invasions.”10

       He sees his mode of political activity, Satyagraha, as arising out of this renunciation. “I can now see that all the principle events of my life, culminating in the vow of brahmacharya, were secretly preparing me for it.”11

       The integralist mode, then, aims at achieving full integration within political activity. There is to be no pretense in manner, no ideological deception, no false certainty and no conflict between one’s values and the means one employs.

       Does the integralist escape from the dilemma of political activity: self-actualization is obtainable only through a political life but political life is inherently self-alienating? Consider Trotsky’s reflections on Gandhi:


The Indian bourgeois is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with the British imperialism no matter what the price; and they lull the Indian masses with hopes of reform from above. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and a false prophet!12


       Putting the ad hominem abuse aside, this critique of Gandhian methods amounts to the claim that regardless of his subjective intentions, the social role of his approach did not promote the interests of the oppressed. Put in a larger perspective, an objectivist might regard the integralist as having suffered the horrifying fate of having acquired, in virtue of his objective role, an identity in direct opposition to that which would have been self-fulfilling. Instead, his real identity, as revealed in his objective social role, is in total conflict with his motives, intentions, and self-identity.

       From the objectivist perspective this pathetic outcome is what happens when one insists on full personal integration in the face of historic conditions that do not permit it. It is not that political activity is inherently fractured, but that the degree and kind of unity it can have is dictated by the particular conditions of the historic period.

       Moreover, the objectivist can point to fundamental fractures that prevent the integralist from achieving the unity he seeks. This issue does not arise if the means-ends connections are known by the integralist to support his specific behavior. But if they are believed, by the integralist himself, to not do so, then he himself has a higher order assessment of his own behavior and values, and according to this assessment he is either irrelevant to the cause that he is committed to or detrimental to its actual fulfillment. Can the integralist proceed if he reaches this kind of judgment about himself?

       One option is to simply bracket these higher order judgments; to do this the integralist might, like Kierkegaard, adopt a skeptical stance towards his own ability to make such judgments. He might say that these are things that mere mortals can never know. But what if the evidence is rather persuasive? The integralist is forced to either deny the persuasive power that his own beliefs lead him to accept, or he must face up to and accept the objectivist’s conclusion that (in the most difficult case) he is actually harming the values to which he is committed. And if he accepts this conclusion about his own activity, then that very activity that in one respect emerges from his deepest convictions in another respect must be viewed as alien. But this outcome defeats the entire integralist project. Thus the integralist is under enormous pressure to in fact deny or not think about the empirical claims that the objectivist puts forward.

       From this perspective an ironic shift occurs: it is Trotsky, the extremist, who emerges as the political expression of the “well-adjusted” individual, emerging from a political psychotherapy or analysis able to accept his limitations and yet function in the world. (The ability to function being a formal property, equally compatible both with “functioning in accord with the social system” and with “functioning as a revolutionary in opposition to that social system.”)

       What Trotsky seems to have been able to accept are the limitations that his historicity placed upon him. Thus, he was able to avoid alienness because alienness, as we have seen, is not a simple function of the perceived lack of integration but is also a function of the degree and type of integration demanded by a conception of the self. From a Marxist perspective one might historicize these criteria of self and agency so that a healthy concept of the self and agency does not center on a degree of integration that is historically impossible. In particular, a healthy conception of the self would allow that the self is present in an activity even when the activity was in conflict with the individual’s moral outlook, so long as the activity maximized the amount of integration permitted by the historical context and the demands of effective action. Thus, while one would always live with some degree of incompleteness and disunity, one would not experience activities that were integrated to the historically possible maximum as alien. Therefore, feelings of alienness arising from moral conflict inherent in political activity might be grasped as the expressions of regressions to bourgeois and ahistorical conceptions of self, agency, and unity. This, at any rate, is an articulation of an outlook that we find implicit within Trotsky’s outlook. And it is a perspective of considerable power and sophistication.

       However, even if we accept this way of understanding how to experience conflicts between one’s values and one’s methods, once one has reached the conclusion that such methods are necessary and that to reject them is itself to play the role of one’s own enemy, the objectivist still faces the second incoherence that is inherent in political activity. Can she be reasonably sure of those means-ends connections? Or at some point is she not threatened with the terrifying realization that in fact she really does not know? Why does the objectivist have no sense of her activity as alien, as unintelligible because of the wide gap that separates what she can know from what she must know in order to act at all?

       After Trotsky wrote “Their Morals and Ours,” the editors of New International invited John Dewey to respond. The choice of Dewey was particularly appropriate, as he had just served as chairman of the Commission of Inquiry that had traveled to Mexico to hear Trotsky give testimony in his own defense against the charges of Stalin. These issues of means and ends and foresight took on worldwide significance as not only the Moscow Trials but the murder of Trotsky himself were soon to be defended as necessary means.

       In his article “Means and Ends,” Dewey agrees with Trotsky that “the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed.”13 He then goes on to say:


One would expect, then, that with the idea of the liberation of mankind as the end-in-view, there would be an examination of all means that are likely to attain this end, and that every suggested means would be weighed and judged on the express ground of the consequences it is likely to produce.

       But this is not the course adopted in Mr. Trotsky’s further discussion.”14


And finally:


The only conclusion I am able to reach is that in avoiding one kind of absolutism Mr. Trotsky has plunged into another kind of absolutism. There appears to be a curious transfer among orthodox Marxists of allegiance from the ideals of socialism and scientific methods of attaining them (scientific in the sense of being based on the objective relations of means and consequences) to the class struggle as the law of historical change.”15


       The “curious transfer” that Dewey notes, the “shift from one kind of absolutism to another” is what concerns us here. Of course it is possible for Trotsky to maintain that he does have adequate knowledge of what the future holds, and thus his actions and manner are appropriate. But surely we must reject this suggestion.

       Even in everyday life, it is hard enough to have a good sense of the consequences. In discussing the experience of alienness in its everyday context, this difficulty was seen to yield a bewildering sense of openness. How much more this must be the case when we extend the horizon, when the actions in question affect thousands or millions of people.

       Consider for example, the well-worn example of British appeasement of the Nazis at Munich. The effort to avoid war by allowing the Germans to take Czechoslovakia clearly failed. And it has been argued that if the Western powers had intervened militarily that the Germans were prepared to retreat. And on this basis supposedly is erected “an historical lesson.” But what lesson is to be found here? What do we really know about what would have happened otherwise? Can we say with any degree of confidence that had there been an allied stand that in the long run it would have been for the better? Is it not equally likely that a stand at that point would have only postponed the German aggression, that the retreat would have only been tactical and that Germany would have continued to expand its strength. Or perhaps that under such conditions, Hitler might have ultimately been less likely to have opened a second front by attacking the Soviet Union before finishing off the Western nations? And if these are open questions, then clearly it is open as to whether or not, even in retrospect, we can do anything but guess at whether it was better or worse from a consequentialist point of view that Hitler was appeased.

       So if the knowledge claims of the objectivist cannot be accepted, then there is a different question. Are the practitioners of this mode of political activity not only in error about the extent of their knowledge, but also deluding themselves? And if so, why are they engaged in a manner that is at its core committed to self-deception?

       What makes the continued presence of self-deception and coarse ideology in politics so curious, is the seeming availability of an alternative. After all, why not be a well-balanced rationalist?

       If objective political engagement is personified by Trotsky, rationalist political engagement is well represented by Bentham. Interestingly, Trotsky himself realized that his focus on objective consequences had a formal similarity to Bentham’s principle of utility. Typical of Trotsky, he dismissed these formal similarities with a derisive comment about the bourgeoisie and the irrelevance of formal similarities.

       Consider then two alternative versions of a principle of utility:


  1. Do that act which has the greatest expected utility.
  2. Do that act which will produce the greatest utility.


As similar as these principles may appear, they represent fundamentally different orientations towards political agency. As far as explicit content is concerned, principle (1) identifies the act to be done in terms of available evidence and probable consequences. The decision-making criterion is greatest expected utility; the act to be done is the act whose consequences when weighted by the probability of their occurrence emerges as better than any other alternative. Which act satisfies the principle in a given choice situation depends on the evidence that is available to that particular decision maker. Principle (2) focuses only on the actual consequences of the acts. It is concerned with the objective nature of the outcomes rather than with a reasonable assessment of future outcomes.

       As I have noted, Trotsky’s orientation is more adequately captured by (2). He is concerned with the actual outcomes. Means are justified in terms of their effects. He does not talk about choosing the means that appear as if they will have the most desirable effects. Bentham, on the other hand, said, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question” (emphasis mine).16

       One might maintain that the only way one could be said to be trying to act in accord with (2) is by choosing the act that appears to satisfy it. And thus, one might argue, a devotion to the objectivist principle implies a devotion to the rationalist principle and thus, for the decision maker, it comes down to the same problem—trying to identify that act most likely to produce the greatest good.

       But this response errs in two respects. First, the claim that the best way to satisfy the objectivist principle is to satisfy the rationalist principle is an empirical claim that when taken as a generalization applicable to all persons is surely false. For many people, simply following well-established rules or obeying the orders of some particular authority, without making any effort to establish probable utilities, would be the best strategy for actually achieving the most good.

       More importantly from the point of view of the dynamics of self-identity/alienation, the two principles are part of a much more fundamental difference. It is a difference with respect to identity; in particular a difference with respect to which characteristics of a person serve to establish who he or she really is.

       The rationalist engagement involves a self that is displayed in its reasonableness, balance, and above all else, in doing one’s best. When one has done one’s best one acquits oneself of one’s responsibility. The objectivist outlook calls for correctness, period. The emphasis is on the objective outcome rather than upon the decision maker’s rationality, responsibility, or intention. This is not to say that the rationalist approach must necessarily be less concerned with what the actual consequences are. It is possible to view the individual as having in addition to an obligation to do that act that has the greatest expected utility a second obligation to pursue with enormous diligence his effort to determine what the likely consequences will be. Yet a deep difference remains. It has to do with how the agent views his or her own identity as determined by having in fact rather than in intent acted in ways that promote the political good to which he or she is devoted.

       From the point of view of one’s own feelings of agency and alienness, the world is very different for a Bentham than it is for a Trotsky. The rationalist agent, who thinks of himself in terms of what he regards as identity-defining properties (e.g., motives, personality characteristics) has the validity of his self-identity largely in his control. That is, he can be something of the person he sees himself to be, merely by doing his best. He is defined by his motives, his beliefs, his propensity to forethought, his efforts, his character. Under normal circumstances these aspects of the self involve matters with which the agent is well acquainted; thus his identity is something that is known to him, and as is natural, his identity is to a large extent created and maintained by his self-identity. That is, the agent’s own understanding of who he is plays a central role in shaping the self in such a way that he is in fact exactly who he thinks he is.

       The objectivist, on the other hand, finds her identity always in danger of slipping out of her control. Since her self-identity is composed of the objective social roles she believes herself to play, its validity is maintained only insofar as her politics plays the historical role she imagines it to play. Psychologically this results in a far greater need to know, to actually know, what the consequences will be. Sometimes this need is met by actual knowledge and sometimes by ideologically held beliefs, that is, beliefs that are held with an unwarranted degree of certitude.

       Trotsky expressed this vast confidence in his own knowledge and the possibilities of learning when he wrote:


The “Trotskyists” learned the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm.17


Without this certainty there is not enough sense of integration to carry on effective political action, but with it revolutionary political activity can provide whatever self-fulfillment transitional people are capable of. Thus, Trotsky writes:


They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will—only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!18


       One might point out that the Trotskyite and the Benthamite use very similar criteria in making decisions, but from the Trotskyite standpoint there is a triviality to “formal or psychological similitudes.”19 What is important is being right in fact. “Compared to revolutionary Marxists, the social-democrats and centrists appear like morons, or like quacks beside physicians: they do not think one problem through to the end.”20

       So part of the answer to the question of self-deception within the objectivist engagement is that an objectivist perspective on identity places the individual under enormous strains to believe that he knows the facts. If he accepts the rationalist perspective, if he accepts that all he has are probabilities and maybe weak ones at that, then his own self-identity becomes unglued. To say this is to say that the very fabric of his personality is in danger of being unraveled. Yet if one is driven towards self-deception in virtue of an objectivist orientation, can one instead embrace a rationalist engagement?

       First, it should be remembered that the objectivist perspective on identity is not something the objectivist chooses. It is something that is carried implicit in a certain vision of history. It is a world that conforms to the tale of King Arthur: until he withdraws the sword from the stone, young Arthur is not known to himself or to others. But he is always that person who will be king, and once it is known to himself that that is who he is, that is his self-identity. The objectivist perspective on identity, which says that one’s role within the story determines who one is, emerges from the power of the story itself.

       Second, the rationalist outlook has problems sustaining itself in the context of political activity, however well it may be suited for the terms of everyday life. There is something self-defeating about being merely hopeful yet well aware of the way things may fail. It gives rise to a mode of nonengagement. Out of integration with one’s beliefs about the limitations of what one really knows, one holds oneself back. Every action has a tentative quality. It has been chosen only because it seems more likely to lead to desired outcomes than other alternatives. This lack of engagement is itself a factor that enters into the process. Doubts and concerns may themselves prevent success.

       This arises most acutely with respect to leadership. If one is only partially committed to a specific line of action, how does one get others to commit themselves? Could one, for instance, raise an army of volunteers on the grounds that probably the war will be won and if so, probably great good will come of it? The contexts of political activity demand a different manner of engagement.

       Furthermore, the psychological viability of Benthamist reasonableness is limited to certain specific contexts. There is a world of difference between the relatively genteel application of Bentham’s calculus to questions of legislation and welfare economics and its application to revolution. We should remember what Kierkegaard said, “It is not wisdom which saves the worst ones from going insane, but indolence.”21 Most likely no one ever was an act-utilitarian. If one is consistently and scrupulously act-utilitarian, then one strips away the familiar habitual limits to possible actions, and one breaks through the moral restraints embedded in the perceptions and conducts that govern the everyday world of interpersonal contacts. To do this is to have an explosion of imagination far greater than that of the immoralist of existential literature who announces, “Everything is lawful!” or “Everything is possible!” At least if one is outside the moral order, one is free to indulge desire, and this is limiting, stabilizing, and habitual. The act-utilitarian is inside the moral order and thus outside the realm of desire, and yet outside the realm of moral rules—that is truly dizzying. For him anything is possible and there are no other principles to limit possibility. Each possible action must be appraised individually, according to the specific consequences of performing that particular token. Existential literature notwithstanding, it is utilitarianism, adherence to a decision rule that contains a specific description of the act to be done, which results in a terrifying freedom. Anything may be required! We ward off the impact of this openness to possibility by restricting the range of actions we will consider and the range of consequences we will notice, to those of the everyday. But to do this is to abandon the political.

       To apply utilitarianism to the political is to extend one’s time span indefinitely, and to extend to the billions the number of persons affected. The range of possible outcomes moves towards the infinite: on the one hand there is the possible destruction of all life, and on the other the final evolution of the human spirit. Applied as best one can, in a world where a given political and economic order means millions of deaths and stunted lives, consequentialism bursts the bounds of decorum. Could it be that Trotsky, who prided himself on thinking things through to the end, was the first serious act-utilitarian?

       Consider Trotsky again. His context is not that of the hypothetical introductory-ethics classroom. Yet the problems that he faced are exactly those extreme situations cited in classroom discussion to test the viability of conflicting theories. In the classroom it is possible to finally throw one’s hands in the air and say, “I don’t know what I would do” or to dismiss the idea that we need an ethics that can handle the most wildly imaginable situations—“What if you are in a strange country and you and your family are taken captive and you are told that unless you kill one of your children, you and all of your children will be tortured and then killed?”

       For Trotsky, this is the context he operates in. And perhaps just because he was a political agent and not merely a bureaucrat with the power of a general, he was intensely aware of it. He wrote, “Stalin arrests and shoots the children of his opponents after these opponents have been themselves executed under false accusations.”22 Suddenly he faces the charge, “The detention of innocent relatives by Stalin is disgusting barbarism. But it remains a barbarism as well when it was dictated by Trotsky (1919).”23 And it is true, Trotsky did order hostages to be taken. How then is he to distinguish himself from Stalin? He writes:


If the revolution had displayed less superfluous generosity from the beginning, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. Thus or otherwise I carry full responsibility for the Decree of 1919. It was a necessary measure in the struggle against oppressors. Only in the historical context of the struggle lies the justification of the decree as in general the justification of the whole civil war which too, can be called, not without foundation “disgusting barbarism.”24


       So the difference between his execution of hostages and that ordered by Stalin is that in his case they were in fact justified acts. We must try to experience the magnitudes of the consequences involved. He says, if there had been less “generosity” it would have resulted in the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives.

       The context created by open-minded act-utilitarianism on the political landscape is not pretty. It was not paranoia that turned many socialists and trade unionists away from the Communists in disgust. Trotsky himself relates,


. . . . an episode which in spite of its modest dimensions, does not badly illustrate the difference between their morals and ours. In 1935, through a letter to my Belgian friends, I developed the conception that the attempt of a young revolutionary party to organize “its own” trade unions is equivalent to suicide. It is necessary to find the workers where they are. But this means paying dues in order to sustain an opportunist apparatus? “Of course,” I replied, “for the right to undermine the reformists it is necessary temporarily to pay them a contribution.” But reformists will not permit us to undermine them? “True,” I answered, “undermining demands conspirative measures. Reformists are the political police of the bourgeoisie within the working class. We must act without their permission and against their interdiction.”25


       If following a utilitarian principle leads to such actions, even if we have gotten to the point of being able to accept odious means because they lead to future good, we need to at least be sure that they do lead to the justifying ends. Once one has killed the hostages, their deaths define one in spite of one’s intentions. One can no longer merely be one who thought their deaths were necessary; one is either one who killed when it was necessary or when it was not necessary. Either Trotsky was the same as Stalin or he was not.

       Something happens to utilitarianism when it is political. The space within which “reasonable people may disagree” expands in the direction of including everything. No longer does utilitarianism circumscribe a friendly club within which all are good, reasonable, and well-intentioned people. All forms of monsters may enter that club. Once one seriously breaks with the unity that Kierkegaard demands and Gandhi seeks, once one is willing to let one’s actions be determined by expected utility, one has let one’s nature rest upon the adequacy of one’s foresight. Under these circumstances, where one is willing to kill innocent hostages if this seems likely to produce the best consequences, one had best be right. In short, when fully acted out in political activity, the psychological space of the Benthamist mode drives itself into the very different space of the Trotskyist mode. The actions dictated by the rule of expected utility are such that they defeat the rationalist perspective on identity; they force one towards an objectivist position on identity.

       Even outside the pressures generated by morally odious means, the objectivist perspective on identity generates pressures to believe one knows the facts. If one lives in terms of one’s historical role, if one’s self-identity is of a consequentialist sort because one’s concept of identity is consequentialist, then it is one’s highest level acts that are self-defining (i.e., the act of producing the distant consequence). When this is so, one has no actual experience of oneself as performing the acts that are self-defining. The meaning of one’s present activity is not only not within one’s immediate control, it is instead in the hands of others. These others exist in the historical future. One is bound to them because they will determine who you have been. Seen from the other direction, we bear the burden of determining the meaning of the actions of those long dead (e.g., the Jew who loses all Jewish self-identity renders futile the acts of those that chose to suffer rather than convert). What this means is that we cannot know the objective meaning of who we are unless we know the long-term consequences of our present activity. Without this knowledge one looks at one’s present activity and knows only that it is giving one one’s identity. But what that identity is, we do not know. If we have a self-identity generated out of our ideals and intentions and yet a consequentialist concept of identity, we do not know if we are really ourselves. Identity slips through our fingers. Political activity loses its capacity as a felt source of self-actualization. It becomes the realm within which our identity is established but no experienced self-actualization is ever warranted. The self we would have ourselves become may always be precisely what we are ruling out through our actions. It may not be psychologically possible to function with this awareness. Under such conditions, one must believe that one knows what one is doing; one must reject the rationalist’s honesty with respect to how little he or she really knows.

       This does not mean that rationalists are not to be found engaged in grand-scale political activity. What it suggests is that they have to avoid the rigorous application of the principle of expected utility. For then one enters realms of action where only a positive consequentialist self-identity can sustain one. And one will have to avoid a political view of the world and history, for this generates a political notion of identity. And finally one must act only when one knows a great deal, otherwise one’s honest manner will undermine one’s actions. In sum, rationalist engagement yields a self-imposed blindness and limitation. Thus, it too emerges as a mode of engagement necessarily rooted in self-deception.



Political Self-Deception


When a political agent is led to self-deception about how much he knows, he may find in extreme situations that he has to constantly maintain himself in a stance of not facing his limitations. He may have to actively screen himself from conflicting evidence. With this comes a particular form of separation of the self from activity. It is a separation that is visible in the manner with which the agent carries out his activity. It is a separation that manifests itself as the appearance of more engagement in the activity than one really has. This is fanaticism.

       Fanaticism is not a matter of what is being done. An extreme act is not an act of fanaticism because of its content. If it is fanatical it is because of how it is done, in relation to the agent’s beliefs and evidence. One can do an extreme act on slim grounds and not be a fanatic if one does it in a way that does not deny one’s lack of knowledge. However, the extreme act often has a false manner because one feels a need for a fidelity of commitment that does not betray to oneself one’s lack of confidence. One blinds oneself to one’s misgivings. In this way the activity or series of activities lose their flexibility. They become stiff and mechanical; there no longer is a constant adjustment of behavior to awareness, to knowledge of new conditions. One “steels oneself up” because rigidity is required. One does not throw a bomb because one is a fanatic, nor is one a fanatic simply because one has thrown a bomb. Rather, we have to make ourselves fanatical in order to throw the bomb. Though the act itself might be justified in terms of maximum expected utility, most Benthamists cannot throw bombs.

       It is not that a given activity type must be done in a specific manner. But rather that just as there are manners that reflect the degree of internal integration of the activity token, the degree to which the complex is an activity, so too different manners reflect different degrees of agency, different degrees to which the self is in the activity, to which it is self-activity. When there is a false manner, not only is much of the self not in the activity, but its falseness—by denying entry to one’s beliefs and attitudes, to one’s doubts and misgivings—denies entry to the self at all. In its extreme we call this madness.

       It would be grossly unfair to the objectivist spirit to paint a picture in which the enormous pressure to actually know the consequences of actions leads only to coarse ideology, self-deception, and fanaticism. The most obvious response to the need to know is in fact to seek true knowledge, and Marx, for one, stands out for his understanding of the importance of social science to political activity. It is not surprising that Marx’s major work falls largely within economics. The transition from what he called “utopian socialism” to “scientific socialism” is captured by the recognition of the importance of understanding the processes of social development. The abandonment of the spirit of utopianism is the abandonment of a belief in the power of individuals to create a radically different social order merely on the basis of a description of that order and the will to do so. Instead, the emphasis shifts to the necessity of understanding the nature of historical evolution, and situating political activity within the realm of possibilities revealed by an understanding of social change.

       As understood by Marx, “scientific socialism” involved more than a reliance on knowledge. It involved a conception of a method of attaining that knowledge that is scientific. Broadly speaking we could talk of a method of experimentation, but when applied to social transformation this is not a matter of experimentation in one sphere and application in another. Rather, the actual attempt, the political process itself, is to become the method whereby one learns how to transform society. Thus in part Marxism faced the problem of the absence of knowledge by answering that the process of political change will be carried out in a manner that generates knowledge.

       But beyond this, the process of transformation is seen as a way of solving the utopian’s dilemma: “Who will teach the teachers?” Through the process of political activity not only does one gain necessary propositional knowledge that may be applied, but one brings into existence the kind of agents that are required to carry out the transformations. Thus the critical notion in the Marxist process is the creation of the revolutionary. This takes the explicit form of the proletariat’s becoming a class that knows itself, not just in the sense of class identity but in terms of its fuller identity, which it comes to understand when it understands the nature of history and capitalism and its role in the transition to communism. Because the process involves transformations that are themselves grounded in economic development, the process is not voluntaristic. As such, it is not subject to the various forms of corruption and failure that have befallen experiments grounded solely in a moral ideal and will, most notably, the religious/utopian communities of the past, to which one might add twentieth-century Soviet Union.

       All this is contained in Marx’s notion of praxis. This notion significantly lifts the burden off the objectivist agent. She can accept the fact that it is possible that she may be in error on specifics because she sees herself as part of an extended piece of political activity carried out by an historical community of political actors who are engaged in a method of political activity and reflection, that in the end will generate the knowledge that they need for their success. And when this is seen as the only way in which the needed transformations can come about, then even if one is wrong one is still part of a larger group of actors that will in the end have played the role one sees oneself as playing.

       But what if there is no such praxis? Or what if we are unable to specify or to actually carry out political activity through which such learning occurs? Or what if we have no way of knowing whether it is we or others who are in fact carrying out such an activity? If this is the case, then having the idea of such a praxis is insufficient; it still remains the case that our identity is unknown and that our self-identity is subject to dissolution.

       The sorry truth is that no such actual praxis has been discovered. If one is a possibility then it remains elusive. But if no such praxis has in fact been found, then how has alienness been avoided? First there is what we have discussed, false certainty and self-deception. But beyond this there is a deeper answer that does not lie in false belief. It lies in a different direction—the abandonment of the objectivist perspective on identity. For all the hardheaded analysis of others in terms of a consequentialist identity, for all the dismissal of intentions in favor of objective consequences, political activity has typically been made possible in the face of ignorance by a final reversal—good intentions are everything! Identity is defined ultimately in terms of intentions and thus political activity is not felt to be separated from the self because it arises from these intentions. So long as one knows what one is intending, one feels at one with oneself. This is the internal definition of voluntarism.

       This retreat to intentions rather than knowledge of consequences as the source of the subjective self-identity of the political agent must be disguised from himself, for his political orientation insists that the only valid self-identity is that which is grounded in knowledge of true identity (i.e., objective consequences). And with this self-deception as to where his sense of identity is coming from, comes this as well: a turning away from a concern with truth.

       Its worst manifestation within the Marxist tradition was the abandonment, by those that actually held state power through leadership in the Party, of a concern with whether what they lead is really the Party in any other sense than that they have given this name to the organization they dominate. Is it a party that will successfully lead the transformation of humanity and society? This is a question not solved but for a time resolved by silencing all voices that might question its actual identity.

       In sum then, I have maintain that objectivism, especially Marxism, on the one hand deepens the sense of the alienness of aspects of self and drives one towards political activity as the one sphere in which one can truly be the agent of one’s activity. Yet paradoxically, political activity is not an ideal vehicle for self-expression, and the Marxist orientation towards objective social consequences deepens the sense of alienness. On the other hand, a Marxist analysis of morality in terms of its social role helps to limit the sense of alienness that arises from moral conflict by locating one’s moral strictures in a bracketed area of self (i.e., the person one finds oneself to be). But because of this freedom from moral restraint, even greater emphasis is placed on knowledge of the objective consequences. And here there are two roads to take. One tends to achieve integration of subjective self-identity with objective social identity through activity guided by knowledge of long-term consequences. The other focus is less on knowledge than on method. However, once we reject a belief in the proletariat as the transformed and transforming agent, we are left without any actual method or knowledge. Thus, the actual attainment of knowledge or the actual attainment of a self-correcting praxis becomes the only alternative to alienness, self-deception, or quietism for political beings.

       It is because no actual praxis has been found, and because reality so often disconfirms the most confident expectations, that political identity and agency is unstable. Because of its comprehensive social and historical notion of identity it offers the promise of the only true self-actualization we can attain. Yet because of our finitude that same notion of identity generates contradictions too powerful to be long sustained by most people.





  1. William Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry IV, Li. 189.
  2. Andre Malraux, Man’s Fate, trans. H. Chevalier (New York: Random House, 1961).
  3. Malraux, Man’s Fate, 145.
  4. Karl Marx, Captial, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: Random House, 1906), 81.
  5. Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours,” New International (June 1938):172.
  6. Leon Trotsky, “Moralists and Sycophants Against Marxism,” New International (August 1939):231-33.
  7. Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. D. Steere (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), 201-03.
  8. Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth (New York: Norton, 1969), 412-17.
  9. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments With Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1948), 259.
  10. Gandhi, Autobiography, 388.
  11. Ibid., 384.
  12. Leon Trotsky, “An Open Letter to the Workers of India,” in The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, ed. Isaac Deutscher (New York: Dell, 1964), 248.
  13. John Dewey, “Means and Ends,” New International (August 1938):232.
  14. Dewey, Means, 232.
  15. Ibid., 232.
  16. Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation in The Utilitarians (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961), 17.
  17. Leon Trotsky, “Ends and Means in Morality,” in The Age of Permanent Revolution, ed. Isaac Deutscher (New York: Dell, 1964), 340.
  18. Trotsky, “Ends,” 340-41.
  19. Ibid., 334.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart,” 203.
  22. Trotsky, “Their Morals,” 169.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 171.